Tim Lepard tossed a chunk of frosted blueberry Pop-Tart into the air, which landed right into the tiny palms and open mouth of Little E — a small monkey with a big skillset and his own celebrity trailer.
Lepard, who sported a cowboy hat and is referred to by his nickname “Wild Thang,” is the owner and operator of Team Ghost Riders, a traveling speciality act featuring seven different Capuchin monkeys riding Border Collies. The team of tiny cowboys will herd sheep as part of the act and are often a big hit with children and adults alike at major sporting events.
Little E’s next stop, though, will be in the Golden Triangle as Team Ghost Riders is booked for both days as part of the Rotary Classic Rodeo at the Mississippi Horse Park on Friday and Saturday.
Horse Park Director Bricklee Miller said they will perform both nights, but have different acts, and will also be available during the pony rides and petting zoo so people can get up close and friendly with Team Ghost Riders.
The petting zoo will be from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s an important part of a rodeo to give people some they will talk about and this is something people will be talking about for a long time,” she said.
THE MONKEY BUSINESS
Team Ghost Riders may be a fun act, but life on the road is anything but novelty.
Lepard has been raising Capuchin monkeys and training them along with border collies and sheep for close to three decades on the road. In total, he has seven monkeys, with one who has been riding Border Collies for 26 years.
While the veterans might have some age on them, Lepard said they ride just as well as four-year-old Little E — a White-Throated Capuchin.
Lepard’s line of work has taken him all over the country, performing for community-sized events like the Rotary rodeo, all the way up to professional football and baseball games.
“You know, if you ask a kid something, like what do they remember, I promise they will remember the monkeys,” Lepard said. “It’s just something about them.”
The entire team has a large travel trailer they call home on the road, with Lepard saying he will hit the circuit in April and not be back home until November.
“I’ve always wanted to go far and beyond with this,” he said. “It’s never what I dreamed of but its different.”
When asked about his training techniques for the monkeys, Lepard responded simply: “Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts.”
He demonstrated Little E’s affinity for the frosted toaster pastries as he broke one up and tossed it in the air. With Little E’s deceptively-strong tail coiled around his arm, the tiny rider snatched the pieces of Pop-Tart from the air with both hands, devouring them with glee.
Lepard tried other treat-based methods in the past, but something about the Pop-Tarts stuck.
“Make sure you got a pack of those,” he laughed. “I was using grapes on them when they would try to take their clothes off. I was trying to treat them. It was the Pop-Tart, though. (Little E) knows they’re back there.”
Little E’s name was the result of a kind of social media poll conducted by Lepard, who tasked the fans of Team Ghost Riders with naming a new addition to the crew.
In Mississippian fashion, the name Elvis — for Elvis Presley — won out.
“He is a little mischievous, he really is fascinated by things,” Lepard commented. “If anything happens, he sees it before I do.”
While monkeys are the unconventional key to the specialty act, special attention is also paid to training and care for the Border Collies, who have a surprisingly warm relationship with their primate counterparts.
“I got the smartest dogs in the world. With Border Collies, everything is in those dogs, I just have to learn to get it out of them,” Lepard said. “They don’t know the monkeys are on them. Dogs love monkeys grooming them, I’ve even seen dogs falling asleep getting groomed.”
The lights and fans may be a special part of his team’s performances over the weekend, but the event will also mark a homecoming of sorts for the road warrior Lepard.
“My two and only grandchildren live in Columbus and they are so excited,” Lepard said. “I’m excited for them to come to one of our shows. It’s been a such a ride. I’m a very blessed person.”